OUR MAN IN HAVANACategory: Cinema + TV/Radio
Produced and directed by Carol Reed. Screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his novel. Director of photography, Oswald Morris. Editor, Bert Bates, Assistant director, Gerry O’Hara. Art director, John Box. Music played by The Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Band. A Carol Reed Production for Columbia Release. British Cinemascope.
Since Orient Express, a 1932 version of Stamboul Train, a dozen of Graham Greene’s novels and “entertainments” have been adapted for the cinema. In a recent article he complained about the infidelities of a good many of these, culminating in Mankiewicz’s disastrous version of the Quiet American — “one could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author”. Only Carol Reed satisfied him; he speaks of their association as “halcyon days”. It is hardly surprising if Reed is a writer’s favourite director; in a recent interview he said: “It is the director’s job… to convey faithfully what the author had in mind.”
All the same, even allowing for uncertainty about what exactly the author had in mind in Our Man in Havana one must slightly question Reed’s complete fidelity. The story is all there, it is true; the screenplay often follows the novel surprisingly closely. The characters, too, are rendered very faithfully. Mr Wormold, the melancholy little joker, who is recruited in the Secret Service and who sets himself up nicely by drawing salaries and expenses for a group of fictitious sub-agents, might well have been conceived with Alec Guinness in mind. And in the event, Guinness lives to perfection “the sad man… cock of all his jests” described by Greene. Noel Coward, too, is splendid as our man in the West Indies, thrusting his umbrella into the Cub&n pavements as resolutely as if he were in Bond Street, and carefully shutting a bamboo skeleton door to keep in the secrets. Burl Ives as Hasselbacher, too; and Ernie Kovacs’s Chief of Police; and Richardson as the Top Person in М. I. 5. [...]
What is missed in the subtle toning of the original? The lightness of touch on the one hand; on the other, the sudden shift, half way through, from farce to ominous drama. The loss is important; it changes Greene’s Our Man in Havana into something much more ordinary, a classy spy melodrama.
Reed is certainly capable of the kind of lightness and delicacy with which Greene invests his writing. Why he has not achieved it in recent films is a trifle mysterious; my own theory is that he no longer closely supervises the editing stages, but leaves his films to be cut by editors whose sense of timing is less exact than his own Here the adaptation is at fault too; the film seems to have broadened to meet the needs of less sophisticated audiences. There is a good deal more explaining now, both of the story and of the jokes; a single Alec Guinness and Noel Coward in Our Man in Havana
reference to “bird-dropping” for example is extended into an elaborate running joke.
And once you have lost the lightness of the early scenes, it is impossible to make the shift to something darker when events take a menacing turn; when various political groups take Mr Wormold invented agents and invented secrets too seriously, and a frolic turns lethal. The murders and assassinations are still there; but they have no longer the same shock; even that sinister, hearty business lunch, planned largely to poison poor Wormold, has turned from horror into something like comedy.
The scenes remain, the characters remain; but the change of tone from frivolity to mortal earnestness does not. And with it goes any possibility to speculate about what Greene wanted to say about politics or spy games or the like. Our Man in Havana remains simply an “entertainment” — and a good craftsmanlike one at that.
(Films and Filming)